Making the big city feel small

Sunlight shines through the front window of Mudspot Coffee on Ninth Street, illuminating the red, orange, and yellow tiles on the wall. First-timers peer indecisively through the window, inspecting the space before walking in with determination, while habitués stroll in, a newspaper in hand, and greet the baristas before sitting by the bar.

George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord is playing in the background when Andrew Constable walks in and sits at the far end of the bar. Before he can even unfold the front page of his newspaper, a barista stacking dishes turns around to set a cappuccino and glass of ice water in front of him. He thanks her and asks about her weekend – a gesture of personal connection in fast-paced, impersonal New York.

Life in big cities like New York can be socially isolating. The loneliness one experiences here has a particular tone to it, something to do with being one in eight million, a single dot in the pointillistic picture of the city. There’s also a particular rhythm to New York – one dictated by everyone going about their day at their own pace, in their world, primarily removed from one another.

In this challenging environment, finding even the smallest opportunities to connect with someone can make the big city feel a little smaller and create a sense of belonging.

A native of Montclair, New Jersey, Constable has been living in the East Village for almost 23 years. “When I moved here, I needed to drink cappuccinos to get my energy up, and I had gone to several places but didn’t like their coffee,” he told me. “I lived in the neighborhood and had walked by [Mudspot] but didn’t really know what to make of the place.” He decided to try it out and ended up liking their coffee. “I’ve been coming back every day, almost everyday… Oh, for ten years maybe?” The rest is history.

“There’s just an energy to New York, you know,” he continued. “I go out to Montclair to see my dentist, and I tell him, ‘It’s just so quiet out here, I can’t deal with it! There’s no energy; it’s like a ghost town!’” Constable finds comfort in New York’s anonymity and observes that anonymity and neighborliness are not mutually exclusive. “I think it’s nice in a city that can be so cold,” Constable continued, “To have a place to go where you’re welcome, like ‘Where Everyone Knows Your Name,’ from Cheers.” Whenever the city brings you down, and you want to feel at ease, “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”

When you live in a small town, your neighbors know you, the shopkeepers and bartenders recognize you. In a city with tens of thousands of shops and food establishments and millions of people, how can you know or be known?

Mudspot is a little haven in the city, Constable added. “You come here and take a break from anonymity, and then you go right back to that other life.” These coffee shops can see hundreds of people come and go every day, and that creates distance between the customers and the baristas. But sometimes, if either recognizes the other, or the usual order is remembered, there’s room for different conversation.

Where Constable finds comfort in a good cappuccino, the appeal of my usual coffee shop is its outdoor patio. It’s in the unexpected silence of that space where I find myself at ease. Only the other day, Cedric, a familiar barista asked “The usual, Olivia?” and my heart skipped a beat. “You remember my name?” I asked. I don’t know why I was surprised; I consider myself a regular. Maybe one of New York City’s most famous clichés does not hold true: we’re not so alone in this big heartless city after all.

You wouldn’t get these stories without taking the time to ask. My conversation with Constable reminded me of the first time I ventured the city streets in search of these kinds of interactions during my freshman year.

My professor, Christopher Packard, has been sending his students to the streets for years, myself included. As a writing professor, he views these out-of-classroom encounters as fundamental to knowing how to understand a culture. “I borrow methods from ethnography because I don’t think you can study a culture without those techniques,” he said. Getting to know different quirks within a society involves interacting with them. Looking back at those early pieces, I’m surprised to learn of my affinity for people’s stories, even back then.

Packard has his theories as to why people gravitate towards each other in big cities. Though he believes common ground draws people together, sometimes it’s not enough. “There are those meditative times where you should isolate yourself,” he explained. “But if you don’t balance that out with getting yourself into the mix of humanity, then you’re living a shorter life.”

The city doesn’t feel so big to him anymore since he moved from Kansas 25 years ago. He was surprised it took him so long to get to the point where he doesn’t consider New York to be a vast and frightening city. “When I first got here this city seemed so huge, there were so many unknowns, and I was aware of all the things I didn’t know,” he added. But now, he’s seen every nook and cranny, and every street corner triggers its own memory. “I don’t even think of it as a big city… My experiences [made] this city my own, so now when I walk around, I remember those moments from when I was young.”

The reality is you’ll eventually cross paths with people in many different ways, and people notice. Community is where you make it, and sometimes all it takes is going to the same spots, maybe asking someone about their day, taking the time to hear their story.

Only a few blocks from Mudspot is a waxing studio that’s always crowded with girls patiently waiting their turn. They sit around in plastic chairs. Some are on their phone, and others study the various inspirational posters that adorn the walls. One catches my eye, “Live Well, Laugh Often, Love Much” written in gold on a light pink background.  

The studio is never silent. Bollywood movie songs play on a loop, bells jingle each time someone walks in, and girls talk among each other about their day. The bells chime, signaling another arrival. The girls strut in with confidence yet all speak in small voices, somehow afraid that the woman they want to see may not be there.

“I’m here to see Nikki?”

“Is Nikki here?”

Girls continue to pour in and wait for Nidhi “Nikki” Chhabra, 37, to finish with another customer before welcoming them with warm hugs. Chhabra is wearing knee-high leather boots and a hot pink Tommy Hilfiger sweater with matching earrings. Her smile is contagious: the moment she comes into sight, all the girls grin and get up to say hello.

“Honey! It’s been a while since I last saw you. I told you already, every three weeks you need to come see me,” Chhabra scolds.

Girls disappear into one of the rooms where one can hear only faint voices punctuated by giggles, and the sound of waxing strips being ripped off and followed by a whimper or grunt of pain. Nikki makes everyone feel special.

“I’ve been to so many other waxing salons, and where you’re in complete silence from beginning to end,” one client said. “It’s weird because you're super exposed in such a literal sense, but there’s no emotional intimacy.” With Nikki it’s different. She asks about your life and you about hers, and a real conversation can follow. She tells clients about leaving India and coming to the United States, her relationship with her son, the men in her life, and it makes for a personal bond.

Sometimes, when I’m walking by Nikki’s, I’ll stop in to chat for a few minutes before continuing on my way. The familiar smell of chocolate that floats around the studio envelops me and my week’s concerns drift away. As Nikki tells me about her “boo,” she occasionally gets texts from other neighborhood girls checking in, asking about her day. She’s the most popular girl on the block.

We tend to romanticize the independent types, the solitary types, the lone wolves. In a city like New York, personal relationships create a sense of belonging instead of isolation. Trying to be self-reliant, to act tough, requires too much energy.

When you feel like you belong somewhere, there’s something inside that eases a little bit, that lets down a defense that is up when you’re on your own. Community sneaks up on you, even if you’re not seeking it out, you’re still confronted by it.